Epistemic status: notes about a specific scientific theory. relevant to therapy, interpersonal relationships and healthy development. Also includes some personal ideas around the theory.
Container and contained is a psychological theory by Wilfred Bion building on the work by Jung. It’s my current reading project.
In the mother/child relationship the mother is the container and the child is the contained. A baby is not good at emotions. It’s also not good at “strange and new” unfortunately for a developing mind, there’s a lot of strange. And without having any foundation “new” pattern matches to “unknown” and therefore according to the theory “death” or “bad”. The mother has two types of container actions.
The first is to see the pain of the child and present their own emotional strength in the face of it. “no now is a time to be happy” and therefore model the healthy ways to form emotional attachment to experience. Food is good, hungry is bad. Injury is bad, laughter is good. The second container is more like, “I see your pain and I am able to hold your emotions and be okay. I can be sad too, and not die”.
The two containers are also relevant to therapy. That’s:
I see your pain and I am okay. And
I can copy your pain, demonstrate having it, and then effectively model self soothing. (as a mature adult container).
The theory also discusses sensory experiences prior to conceptualisation as beta states and interpersonal cognition as alpha function. β: “I see the object”, 𝜶: “object reminds me of my mean friend and therefore (as a 2 year old) the object makes the world upset”. Early childhood is a process of calibrating these states and testing experiences.
Ultimately the healthy adult is their own self sufficient container and knows how to do both containers to their own emotions when they are needed.
A lot of social/friending seems like pairwise containerising.
A friend saying “you are right, I am scared too”, creates the emotional mirroring validation of a container. Or a friend (coach? Archetype) “bravely” saying, “it’s okay to be afraid”.
It seems unclear how to know which container is right, other than “to know already”. It seems like there is no research on this. There is little information on the container theory as it is because it’s still developing.
I have been experimenting with noticing container styles and watching it happen. Today I noticed someone do the wrong one for a particular moment for me. Minutes later they did the other container which was wrong in that situation too. Internally it was funny. The poor friend probably just felt unhelpful for that moment. Planning to watch myself and which container I tend to give. See how I go and if I can sense into the other one and check to see if it’s more useful.
I suspect that I want lots of “being and being strong” container and I give that off a lot too. Even if it’s sometimes the wrong one. I don’t want people to take my emotions and be moved by them or to model their management of the emotions. I want them to see me as I am and just be. Suspect that this comes from a particular failing of my upbringing and other people will be different.
I suspect there’s more here in terms of what beliefs and structures are implicitly created by the two types of container. Where the “taking emotions” does more of a, “let me model that for you” and the “just watching and being strong” does more of the, “you are showing me how much of a strong and independent agent you are”.
By different underlying needs, we uncover different underlying desire for validation experiences. There is also probably insight here about BPD and a constantly shifting goalpost where maybe someone can be in a state where “I can’t model my own emotions healthily so don’t watch me”, at the same time as “don’t tell me what to do”. With basically the worst of both worlds of lack/need.
Maybe there’s an internalisation of safe/secure existence?
Where it’s first parentally modelled and later it’s owned by the child. in theory, a trained alpha function brain knows how to conceptualise keeping itself safe. And carries that information everywhere. “safe” being a proxy word for all things relevant to keeping an agent alive and evolutionarily relevant.
All I can suggest is to watch the two types of containers and see if this is relevant to your life.
Epistemic status: A bunch of meditation and meditation theory. A previously undocumented theory of this corner of consciousness.
The book The Science of Pranayama offers that the thought stream is tethered to the breath via the prana, “Just as the bird that is tied to a post by a string”. Meditation theory often uses animal analogies like the Ox Herder pictures. Pointing out the great way describes, “It requires some effort to tie up a wild camel, and it takes some skill to untie the camel and have it stay”. Other wild animals are also common to describe the untamed mind.
I put a lot of thought into this concept and applying it further than it was originally suggested. I meditated while trying to observe for myself what was going on and why. There’s something subtle about the way a deep breath out will interact with the thought stream. Feels like a sigh of letting go. I watch “emotional content” conversations and when I feel the need to take a deep breath, I notice when I don’t and when I should.
Concrete: This is the physical, physiological. The beating heart, the breath.
A concrete tier injury looks like a broken leg. Or a scratch wound. It takes time to heal. Feeling hungry is not on the concrete level, we don’t die from feeling hungry (we die from starvation). Feeling cold usually starts on the subtle level but there is a life threatening feeling of cold.
There is a bridge between Concrete and subtle tiers through experiences like “goosebumps” where they register as a physical state and as a subtle feeling, or some mix of the two.
Subtle: This is an aptly named tier because – it’s subtle. An experience of the emotional subjective happens here. I feel happy, I feel guilty. A few “weird” feelings and hunches like “gut instinct” that seem guiding but without being as easy to describe as the concrete tier.
A subtle injury is a panic attack or being distraught. It is possible to be in an extended state of injury to this level but it’s not possible to “break a happy” or break a miserable in a way that it becomes permanently injured and requires time to heal like a broken bone or a scratch. It is possible to set up a happy so that it leads straight to fear, i.e. “I’m not allowed to be happy because that’s when bad things happen”. In this sense, “Happy” and “Fear” are not broken themselves but they are routed through each other.
Causal: On this level are impersonal ideological drives. This level is where meaning and purpose registers. When someone feels like “making a difference in the world” or “being part of something greater”, these register on the causal level, not quite a feeling but sometimes a drive. The causal level is occasionally described as a void or various spirit-y phenomena.
A Causal injury might take days, months to become clear, it might take days, months or years to heal. An example here is tricky to pinpoint but a loss of purpose or a disconnection from meaning might land here. As a teenager, going through a break up hits the causal tier particularly strongly. As an adult (a divorce or) a break up does the same. Relationships often register on the meaning level (for the kegan stage 3 particularly). Where it doesn’t just feel bad, it feels “dooming”.
About break ups – the interesting thing to note is that I could “break up” every day. It would be emotionally hard, but it would not cause death to me, there’s no “physical injury” to a “break up” despite it probably feeling worse than a broken bone. For something with “break” in the name, something physical did not break. With the open question of, “what took injury in a break up?” (some clues: expectations, intentions, plans, hope). Note: a break up every day would probably start feeling like a heart attack, or conversely – complete numbness.
Not wanting to downplay the significance of the causal tier with a soft example like a break up, there are more ideological concepts than break ups on causal tier. Imagine being subscribed to communism and the realisation that a lifetime of effort in that movement was ineffective towards it’s goals. Not a physical injury, likely some aspect of “feels bad” but there’s also a “aaaah noooo” experience that goes with this shift of understanding.
Where does mental illness fit?
The whole model relies on a re-conceptualisation of mental health as being a different kind of information.
My brief answer is, “Not as it seems”. Most mental health problems are not states of constant emotional pain, i.e. depression is not an equivalent “constantly broken” experience like a bone or scratch. It’s a mostly calm mind with small nudges towards less than amazing decisions for a very long time. (I can’t say too much in this spot around that – other than, “huh that’s weird, watch this space”). Psychosis and mania seems like extended subtle tier experiences and I’m still trying to understand that.
The levels are connected with a tether (metaphorically a string that tugs on them to line up). In various circumstances or people, the tether changes length or has freedom depending on all kinds of factors. For example in summer I have more energy. I can take on more social adventures and play around more without feeling bad. (Linking concept SAD)
When I visit a foreign culture, my tether for “getting offended” (Feeling offended) is longer because on a causal level I recognise there is going to be parts of this culture where I don’t understand how it works.
It may help to think of boats floating on a river, tied to each other. Wherever any boat floats, the other boats will begin to follow. The river is the subjective experience of the external world, like summer, living in a warzone, being stressed at work, getting lots of sleep, etc. There are plenty of examples of different river events that can direct the boats to travel around.
Example: Concrete to Subtle Tether
I exercise. and I exercise routinely for a month. At some point along the way, my depression lifts and my quality of life increases. Further exercise will help to maintain my quality of life but it’s not a guarantee.
I stop exercising. I spend a lot of time on the couch and TV-watching. I do this for a few weeks and my desire to go out and do interesting activities diminishes. I feel lethargic. I lose motivation and I wonder why. I feel like, “I should really exercise” but I don’t necessarily act.
In summer, my physical body is warmer. I don’t feel hungry as often, and I stay awake longer without feeling tired. I can exercise so hard that I injure myself and it can take days of pretending I am okay in order to seek help. My subtle is strongly anchored in the present state of the concrete tier (I still move around fine despite injury) and my subtle takes time to catch up to the reality of physical injury. Eventually I wake up with difficulty moving and my subtle tier catches up to feeling bad about this.
These tiers are tethered.
Example: Subtle to causal tier
I’m happy, curious and excited. It doesn’t matter what I put my time towards, I enjoy the activity that I am doing. Wherever I choose to engage my energy, feels like the thing that I most enjoy. I start new projects with this energy. Explore fun ideas, and seem to have enough spare time to do anything I like.
I meet someone who is kind and generous. They are involved in a church group. I feel good around them because I recognise them as being a great person despite having different beliefs about which groups to be invested in. Eventually I follow them to church because it seems to have been good for them.
These tiers are tethered.
Example: Causal to subtle tier
I am working on my favourite hobby. Someone whose opinion I care about makes a sly comment to invalidate my interest. I laugh a little. Days later I am frustrated and annoyed at reality. With good meditation practices I could trace the problem back to the comment. Without it I would just feel uncomfortable and confused as to why. I spend several days wondering why everything is shit. Sitting on the couch maybe, trying desperately to distract myself. With more ADHD I forget and am doing 101 other projects. With less ADHD I have listless misery.
Without meditation – eventually I take a shower and have shower-thoughts time to make a little progress on the problem. It either stays forever, or goes away by me working it out. Or I quit the project.
Example: Subtle to concrete tier.
I’m miserable. I just went through a break up. I don’t want to move my body. I want to stay in bed. I haven’t showered in a few days. I’m eating ice-cream and chocolate but it’s really not helping. Somehow this feels like I am honouring my emotional pain, in another way it feels pointless, but everything feels pointless right now.
When I get stressed at work, I eat more. I get home after work and I am starving. I eat chocolate and snacks and I can’t seem to diet. My friends encourage me to switch to fruit and I do that, I eat the fruit as well. Life is just too hard right now.
Example: Subtle to other tiers
I experienced the death of my grandfather. I have an image in my mind of the temporary nature of life. It’s left me a little shaken for days. I look at all the things he cared about and how some of them never got completed. I wonder about what I’m working towards. I don’t rush to work today. I’m delicate to myself for a week or two and I find myself gradually floating back to where I was in life.
Example: Concrete to causal
I make friends with a dodgy crowd. They drink heavily and they eat unhealthy foods. This is great because drinking heavily helps me avoid the problems caused by heavy drinking. I make this my lifestyle and I regularly drink to avoid connecting with my problems around avoiding purpose in life. Social life is fun and I always laugh with my mates. Maybe that’s all there is to life?
Example: Causal to concrete
I believe in being part of something greater. I give coins to homeless people and I always smile at strangers. I want to make the world a better place and in these small ways I am connecting with a higher purpose. I know it’s important because I regularly get comments about it and encouragement. I start to see people copying me and I watch a smile spread through a crowd as I pass. I post happy things on social media and I watch as I brighten up people’s days. I live in a world which I choose to see as happy.
Working with the tiers
The, So you feel like shitguide starts with the concrete tier. Have I had a glass of water today? Have I eaten recently? Taken medication? Have I exercised today?
This is an excellent strategy. The benefit of starting with the ground is that it’s easy to fix being uncomfortable and needing a toilet. Many practices describe themselves as “grounding”. For me, I can check in with my body with a handful of probing questions that I make up myself.
Am I breathing? (duh!) Take a deep breath.
Am I injured?
Am I sore? Where?
How is my posture?
Am I sweating or thirsty?
Am I hungry? Do I need food?
Have I exercised? Can I go for a walk?
Am I currently in physical danger?
There is a benefit to grounding checks for taking the mind out of past/present rumination and into the present moment, as well as the opportunity to solve these problems if relevant.
Following concrete checks, move on to subtle checks.
Am I currently distraught?
Is there something that happened that keeps making me feel bad?
Do I need to complete the thoughts about that?
What’s the overall feeling quality of the whole saga?
Is there some trigger that keeps dragging me back to emotional pain?
Can I bring myself to a calm/neutral space emotionally?
Once I’m in a calm place on my concrete and my subtle, I can watch to see what’s happening. This will usually mean physically being still (sitting), emptying out the current thought stream, and watching what happens next. The next place my attention goes towards is likely to be a causal event.
For example: If I am looking at some birds while I wait (a stimuli). My mind sees one bird go to bite another bird. I kinda smile and think about how they remind me of little kids bickering. Suddenly I recall a fight I had with a childhood friend and how upset I was. And how people seem to misunderstand me. And PAUSE. Wow. That’s what’s bothering me on the causal level. The other day I tried to help someone and they got offended. For all my efforts to help and all my intentions, I am mad at myself for failing.
“Mad at myself for failing”. Clarity around what I’m upset about can allow me to be compassionate to the part of myself that wants to do better. I’m only mad because I want the world to be a better place, and yeah, I see that. Realising my drive on a causal level to make the world a better place helps me see how that tether is linked to my subtle emotions and how that’s linked to my procrastination on the physical level.
I think of my “realising” in the paragraph above as a movement on the causal level to loosen the tether between my other causal drive and my subtle emotional states.
No post of mine is ever complete without at least one picture, so here it is. An idea (causal level entity) that can change the nature of tethers between the concrete (social situation) and the subtle (emotion – excitement/anxious) tiers.
Tiers are from integral theory, StAGES model, Buddhism several other theories that try to amalgamate the different subjective experiences of consciousness. Mine are not full definitions of the tiers, especially causal (or “very subtle”) tier, which I find hard to describe. For the purpose of further discussion it may be helpful to treat this as a rough map to someone else’s concept.
Thanks to my draft readers.
Meta: I’ve been sitting on this post for a few months. Not sure how long it took to write.
Mental health can often feel like the inability to get clarity around if it’s, “just me” or if it’s “the world” that’s crazy. There’s an open question in any interpersonal problem “is it me or is it them”. Basic game theory might have you look at the general strategies and take a precommitment, like Tit for tat, with forgiveness. Something like, “It’s always me” or “it’s always them” – as the opinion that is formed in response to the stimuli being presented. These strategies tend to look like mental health problems when applied far too liberally. Some examples of these are in the List of Maladaptive Schemas.
If you play fixed mindset belief games, you will be bested by people who can see your fixed mindset and predict it. And beat it.
Unfortunately for basic game theory, advanced game theory comes along and sees all the other people playing with Tit-for-tat, with forgiveness strategies and generates a one-up strategy whereby advanced game theoretic players can beat basic game theoretic players, Just by playing one move ahead of the basic players.
(movie: The Princess Bride)
Unfortunately for advanced game theory, there exists expert game theory players who have seen that strategy and devised advanced strategies for solving the “how do I beat basic, and advanced game players”.
And unfortunately for expert game theory players there exists the halting problem. Where there will always be another level of play strategy. And there will always be another strategy taking into account all previous strategies. And this is an infinite loop.
how do I get feedback on an infinitely recursive system with the halting problem?
I only have one answer. And it’s an unfortunately frustrating one. I hint at the answer in the emotional training model but that’s not ultimately obvious enough.
Feedback has to come from within.
How do I know what to do? How do I gauge what is right and wrong where all I have to go on is the intention to gage right and wrong, and a collection of informational experiences that form my sensate reality including knowledge I have gathered by reading books, talking to people and experiencing life myself?
There is no “truth grain” external to the self; where, having found the truth grain, there is no need to be wrong ever again. There is no fundamental reason why we can believe and trust external information more than internal information. (external information is only internally represented after all – with an assumption that we can comparably across brains; form equivalent internal representations of external information.)
I am ae enclosed brain. Feedback has to come from within the system. When I look in a mirror, I see a reflection of myself, but the reflection registers in the system. The results of the reflection “wow I like the way I look” is a judgement call that happens from within the system. When I ask my friend how I look and I receive the information that “I look as ugly as a bat out of hell”, that information registers inside the system. Inside the brain. External validation is an illusion.
In that sense, if I didn’t already, now would be a good time to start liking myself.
Group identity: People may alter their language to express group identification. This can happen, for example, when introducing members of a particular group to others.
Lexical need: People often use some technical terms or words written in another language. In that case, if people try to translate those words, that might distort the exact meaning and value of the word or term. In this case, code switching occurs to maintain the exact meaning of the word.
I care about cultural code switching. But also a very particular problem where words in one “code” start to not be capable of describing the nature of the informational transfer. Where words start to break down.
“have you tried turning up the volume on your attention?”
My recent investigations have shifted from the scientific structural rational playing field to the spiritual mystical enlightenment playing field. If I had lexical problems before, they hit an all new level where each person’s lexical map is just comfortable being independent to each other person’s map.
How do I describe a wordless experience? How do I transmit, record, encode or remind myself – what is the difference between “attention”, “awareness” and “focus”?
Awareness is broad and soft. Attention is sharp, focus is the pointy part of attention. If I think of focus as a lens pointing light to a single dot, that’s focus. Awareness is a broad focus, but objects are not blurry per se, just taken to be as a holon, not as an individual.
And on it goes, with energy, awareness, emotions, colours, spirits, powers, understanding, confusion and so many many more codes.
The benefit of code switching, over say – rejecting someone for using certain words, is that it’s way more inclusive. If I reflect internally that maybe I have misunderstood their code, then ask for clarification – I’m much more likely to treat them as a steelman than a strawman. Take charitably what is said and from there… grow.
I had a very deep and intense conversation with a friend. We talked about “that feeling of being alone” and that relationships will come and go and really, “I am all that I can guarantee that I have” at the end of the day. My conversation partner asked me, “How do I be a friend to myself?”
And I clicked into a realisation.
Tighten your seat-belt and settle down for an epic dojo exercises that you weren’t expecting
Non-duality. Differentiation and integration.
One concept that meditation books (like: Pointing Out The Great Way, The Attention Revolution, The Mind Illuminated, Mastering The Core Teachings of the Buddha (FREE); ) talk about is the concept of non-duality (between many things, but this time specifically) between the observer of the thoughts and the one having thoughts. There’s a meditation path where the instructions are to point attention on attention itself. When I try to watch myself putting attention on somewhere else I can, but I lose a bit of attention when I “watch” myself. So I can watch myself having a thought, and feel the confusing feeling where I try to find who is having the thought, especially if I am busy watching then *oh wait now I’m watching not thought-ing*. The instructions are to repeat until [spoiler alert] you burn a hole through the idea of duality and you conclude on a sensation level of realisation there is a non-duality of self here.
(Strange and weird so far, that’s fine)
I am my own guide.
(this story is hard to transmit and I’m scared to share it here so I’m leaving it out but it’s significant and one day I might write it up)
I have always had my own back.
I participated in a holotropic breathwork workshop. In short, the instructions are to breathe fast, deep and without breaks until you start seeing things. Then breathe into the experience. Without getting technical, there’s something about oxygenation, lack of carbon dioxide, heart rate, and lower brain access that causes interesting experiences, something about oxygenation that feels healing and something about extended duration and the right thematic music to give exciting realisations.
I followed the instructions and I found myself a little too good at breathing. I breathed so fast that I missed it. Then I worked out what had happened and decided to slow down, breathe lightly and see if I could find the right balance of where experiences happened. As I floated down from “too far” searching for my own trippy visualisation “spirit journey”. My awareness was on what was happening, the floating down experience. Suddenly I got an image of myself, not lying on a bed, but on a leaf. Floating down in gentle wind, but also a viscerally strong sensation, feeling that I am holding myself. I am protecting myself, “I have always had my own back”.
This casually profound feeling is not one that transmits via words. It’s a powerful and wonderful experience to have and any doubt of myself was washed away by the feeling that I now can return back to any time to the feeling that I protect myself. I have my own back.
There are a few classic precepts that might ring true and common:
I am my own hero
I put pressure on myself
I crack the whip
I take care of myself.
I am my own god. I am one with the universe. I worship myself. I am in connection to god (people sometimes say these)
younger levels: I like myself, I am confident.
Very young: I want ice-cream for myself.
(monkey in a cage) (rat on a wheel)
Each of these has a non-duality of self in it:
I am the self that does the liking; and
I am the self that is being liked.
But when I say that I like myself I usually imagine I am the one doing the liking, not the one being liked. To think I am the other one, and to occupy that experience for a moment is a little jarring, a little dissociating and a little uncomfortable.
Exercise – Dojo.
Our dojos are run as a group with ~10 people in the room, once a month.
blank paper, pen.
Set a 4 minute timer.
Generate a list of answers to the question “What is my relationship to myself?” Look into various facets of my life, what is the relationship I have to myself?
For example: I am the one who earns the pay-cheque for myself.
Have a brief discussion of what we found. This is an opportunity to learn from one another and steal each other’s ideas for ourselves if they are relevant. People don’t have to share, people don’t have to participate.
Now take those statements and for each of them divide them into the two sides. (2mins)
Ex: I am the one earning the paycheque. I am the one being earnt for.
As you do that, ask yourself which one you are, mark them off.
Have a brief discussion about what we found, was anyone surprised?
Note: some statements break into more than two. Example:
I am the one pushing myself to go to work, to earn the paycheque
I am the one being pushed to go to work, to earn the paycheque
I am the one doing the earning
I am the one being earnt for.
Discussion: Anyone having trouble dividing the statements? How does it feel to you? If you don’t divide, that’s fine too. And a learning point.
How does it feel to be the other one?
4 mins. For each of the relationships, imagine you are the other half of the duality. How does it feel to be the other half?
What are the rights of the other half? What were the rights of the first half? Are you treating yourself fairly? Can you strike a new bargain?
Is this a balanced relationship? Do you want to change the relationship to be more balanced?
WaitButWhy described his relationship with his procrastinator monkey. A friend of mine once drew up a contract between the parts. The rights and responsibilities of the two (or more) Internal Family actors in their internal world.
Discussion here about what we found.
How does it feel to be the other one?
Imagine there are two of you walking down a path. An older you and a younger you. Which one do you associate with?
What is each one doing?
(most people pick one over the other)
Now imagine there is a third one of you so that you are the middle one.
Now take away the first of the pair that you started with that you weren’t. (for instance if you were the older one, you are now the younger of the two on the path)
How does it feel to be the other one?
What are the two doing now?
Discussion. How did it feel, what did we find?
2 mins – try to be kind to the other you. Or try to be harsher. What do you want?
This applies to the relationship to exterior world too. Are you the one putting the pressure on or the one being pressured? Are you the one giving or the one receiving?
Stand one foot on the other foot.
How does it feel to be the foot being stood on?
How does it feel to be the foot doing the standing on?
How do you feel about your ability to balance while standing on yourself in this position.
Vary the pressure between how much you are leaning on yourself, ask the above questions again.
This is an exploration of your interactions with the rest of the world.
Feel around for the happy medium where both feet are happy with this relationship. How does this describe your desire to support others and be supported by others.
Life is propagated by two main clusters of emotions. (*Yes I know it’s more like a spectrum but this is the poor simplification I am using for now)
The “good” feelings that we move towards, and the “bad” feelings that we move away from. (then there’s the neutral ones we hang around in sometimes but that’s for another time).
If you spend your life always running from the bad ones and always running towards the good ones, you may have a good life. You may have a life that just gets lucky and has more good than bad. Alternatively you may have hard things to do that involve feeling uncomfortable for short or long periods of time. If you are forever running away from the bad emotions, and forever addicted to running towards the good emotions, you are severely limited in your agency compared to if you have even a little bit of freedom to do something like, “avoid short term rewards”, or “put up with scary moments” on the way to other experiences. (see also The Trauma model of mental health)
The carnival ride example
Charlie the five year old goes on a carnival ride. Charlie the five year old throws up. Charlie the five year old learns that carnival rides make you feel terrible.
In (one of many) healthy worlds: When charlie turns ten, his friends ask him to go to the carnival again. Charlie realises that the carnival ride might be different now, he fuels himself with a bit of peer pressure and he runs a new experiment, pushing back on the terrible feeling that he would usually avoid and rewrites his inclination to avoid terrible things. Consequently charlie relearns that a carnival ride is only sometimes terrible and with the support of friends it can be good.
In (one of many) unhealthy worlds: When charlie turns ten, his friends ask him to go to the carnival again. Charlie remembers that the carnival rides feel terrible and decides not to go to the carnival. This reinforces the terrible feeling. Charlie feels entirely justified in avoiding a terrible thing, his friends don’t really care either way and life goes on. Charlie keeping a tiny reinforced experience that he should avoid terrible things.
Objectively speaking, a carnival ride is not terrible or good. Subjectively, the feelings we attach to such experiences are what guides us in future experiences. Rightly or wrongly, all possible futures for charlie are going to be guided by the possibility that those emotions will come up.
In an ideal world, our emotions, our s1 will be trained accurately from our surroundings.
In prehistoric times, we avoid the crocodile lake because we feel scared of the danger there. The humans who didn’t feel scared of the danger, didn’t avoid the lake, didn’t live, and didn’t pass on their genes.
Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world for emotional training, and despite the best of intentions we can still wind up with emotional maps that don’t help us to win at life.
The good news is that we can re-train our early emotional models of the world. The bad news is that it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and people spend years meditating on mountain tops for equanimity towards all experiences.
With that in mind – let’s begin.
The destination is the ability to feel uncomfortable feelings. The result is to get to the other side. Unfortunately like all cryptic journeys, you can’t be too focused on the result or you will miss the whole “value in the journey” thing that all those wise people talk about. You can think of this practice as a meditation on feelings
(This looks similar to ACT, that’s because it is.)
To start – ask yourself, “How am I feeling?”. That will give you an entry point. There’s always an entry point. Even if it’s confused, or I feel like not doing this exercise right now, or I feel like being distracted by that other tab.
Then ask, “What is it like being me right now feeling X?”. This question develops a relationship to the thoughtstream.
For our 3 examples above:
Confused feels like Silly
Not doing the exercise feels rebellious
Distraction Feels exciting or Guitly
Repeat the question with the new find, “What does it feel like being me right now feeling X?”. Building the ongoing relationship with the thoughtstream.
Silly feels like A clown that people would poke fun at(this is an example of a metaphorical pointer to a feeling)
Rebellious feels empowering but then also scary
Exciting Feels like missing out or Like being stuck in the classroom during lunch time when everyone else is outside playing (This is another example of the metaphor)
Guilty feels like a heavy weight in my chest (this is an example of a physical manifestation of a feeling)
These paths further each might open up into other feeling paths.
A clown that people would poke fun at
What does it feel like to be the clown anyway?
What does it feel like to be the person laughing at the clown here?
What does it feel like to be poked fun at?
What does it feel like being me right now, feeling empowered?
What if I did the opposite? How would that feel?
What does it feel like being scared like this right now?
What does it feel like to miss out right now?
Like being stuck in the classroom during lunch time when everyone else is outside playing
What does it feel like to be stuck in the classroom?
a heavy weight in my chest
What does it feel like to be heavy in the chest right now?
For the purpose of example, I’ve generated multiple paths. In practice I’d be looking to go down one path at a time. That might look like this:
How am I feeling right now?
I feel confused about the exercise
What is it like being me right now feeling confused?
What is it like being me right now feeling silly?
Like a clown being poked fun at
What does it feel like to be the clown?
And onward through several feelings. At some point, it becomes useful to not run from a feeling to the next feeling, and instead sit on it for a moment. That might be after 10, 20 or 30+ different stops along the journey.
(in the interest of being brief I’m going to stop at 8 instead of 30) At 8, that means feeling embarrassed, but instead of asking myself for the answer of what it feels like to feel embarrassed – I stop and try to feel what it feels like to feel embarrassed.
Instead of looking for a word underneath embarrassed, I feel the feeling of embarrassed. And wait. And it’s uncomfortable, but to get distracted by the uncomfortable feeling would be to leave embarrassed. So I go back to embarrassed. And it gets heavy. And to get distracted onto heavy would be to not be embarrassed any more. And it feels like something is crushing my chest, and it’s getting tighter. And it might crush me, and I might not breathe. And I wait.
And then it stops crushing. And it softens, and it eases, and it levels out to a different feeling. And I take a deep breath. And I feel calm. A very deep sense of calm. I feel like I’d be okay being embarrassed. As long as I remember that there’s a sense of calm underneath.
And I feel calm. And I feel relieved, and complete.
And that’s what it feels like to feel an uncomfortable feeling and get to the other side. That’s what it feels like to untrain the carnival ride effect.
“Let me practice my free throw from different distances so that I can throw well wherever I am in the game”. Anders Ericsson (10,000 hours guy) in Peak, talks about deliberate practice. He also talks about the difficulty in getting feedback.
Feedback is the hardest part of learning anything. Good feedback and you can go from chopsticks to beethoven in simple steps. Technically speaking, the “hard part” of the skill is not the part which requires you to physically press the buttons on a piano. Or the part that requires you to work out how to move the piece in tetris to where you want it to go. The part of the chess game that is moving the piece to the next location on the board. The part of poker that is reading the cards and knowing which ones you have.
Most games have a basic level of skill that isn’t that hard. Anyone can play tennis provided they can hold a racket and swing.. Okay maybe you need eyeballs and the ability to move around a court too but the barrier isn’t much higher than that. Some skills require more, unicycle actually takes balance, that might take longer to learn, and some games are complicated like this too.
Bad feedback is also useful. From the books, How to Measure Anything, Superforecasters, and everyone in the quantified self movement… Even a shitty piece of feedback has a Value of Information that can be valuable. One of my favourite poor pieces of feedback is when I added to my Self Form, “did I stick to my diet today? yes/no/maybe”. Like magic for a month I stuck to my diet and I lost 2kg. One good clean feedback measure and I made leaps. (Sure enough, eventually other problems got in my way, but it was a good start.)
The feedback problem asks, “How would I know if I am improving?”. For a musician, that might be to recording yourself playing then listen back to what you sound like. For a farmer, that might be to weigh or count the crop and compare that to last year. For a scientist that might be repeated tests for reliability, and for someone with an emotionally trauma history that might look like “I don’t feel terrible”.
Science really likes to isolate variables. From first grade, dropping a ball to measure gravity experiment. We talk about the wind resistance on the ball, and how it might affect a measurement. So we repeat the experiment for reliability. Assuming if we have slightly different wind, and we average out the noise we can probably work out the answer on average by getting repeatability.
The “astute” of us will think about who drops the ball, how the ball drops and how we can drop the ball in an impartial way so as to not affect the experiment ourselves when we run it.
This process presumes there is some kind of setup that can isolate us from the equation when we drop the ball. And we can probably drop the ball in such a way that it isn’t too important for the results of the experiment.
The “way too astute for their own good” will start to think about local density effects of having humans around and moving and how humans will still influence the experiment with our teeny gravitational pulls even if it’s irrelevant for the most part.
It’s easier for inert experiments to isolate a variable – It’s just a ball and just gravity. We take this principle from the ball and gravity and we apply it to Psychology. If we can just stand back and watch people. We can do psychology research without disturbing them.
Well actually we know that we have trouble with repeatability of experiments. It’s remarkably hard to do an experiment the same every time. And we struggle with it and we wrestle with it. And we isolate enough variables that eventually we believe we can predict “how often people cheat given certain conditions” (Dan Ariely studies human biases and how certain conditions influence people to cheat, he’s great fun to read but that’s not so important right now).
Somehow there’s this trouble with isolating variables. All of science struggles with it. All of model making struggles with it. Einstein struggled with it. Any time we try to learn we struggle with it. We wonder – Was that the gravity on the ball that I’m trying to isolate and measure, or was that just the wind on the ball…
It’s an odd problem. How do we communicate when we are each locked in our own Chinese room.
In computing terms – a handshake allows for an affirmation of knowledge to be returned. Unfortunately a completed handshake does not confirm shared knowledge. RandomAgent can sometimes confirm a handshake with YesAgent by getting randomly the right 1’s and 0’s to fulfil YesAgent’s criteria for confirmation.
The problem of other minds is that we can’t necessarily trust both agents to be using the same communication method. We could have a bit-flip, we could have a different code. We can’t assume the method of communication is sound.
This is seen in the Two Generals’ Problem. Where each general cannot trust the other general’s communication.
This year I read 79 or so books. Also there are 24 more books that I put down without finishing. That’s a lot to summarise. 2017 has become my baseline year for what to expect for myself in the future.
Before I get into the books, let me explain how this many books is possible.
In 2017 I discovered FBReader. An app for ebooks on android phones (Natural reader is a good app for IOS). That is FBReader and TTS plugin. With a bit of getting used to, and tweaking of speed I have managed to read an obviously startling number of books – I even surprised myself. So many in fact that I challenge myself to be able to remember them all and act in line with everything they have taught me. This summary and the parts to follow are as much for me as it is for you. For me – to confirm I took away what I wanted to take away. For you – to use as notes and evaluations on what is worth reading. I hope you enjoy, a review of all the books I read this year.
I get asked if I properly take in the information by audio-reading. The answer is yes and no. Sometimes I miss things, sometimes I read a book twice. Sometimes even more times. Sometimes I don’t need to re-read it. Overall I am in a much much better position for having read books in the way that I have than not at all.
For the person functioning at Kegan’s stage 2, relationships entail the coordination of two sets of needs: what one person desires and what the other person desires. There is a clear recognition of the other person as a separate individual with his or her own separate needs and interests. But in a fundamental way, the stage-2 person’s experience of his partner remains an external experience. What others think and feel may matter to them, but it doesn’t become a feature of the stage-2 individual’s sense of self. The monumental shift in perspective-taking that occurs with the advent of stage 3 is the capacity to make another’s experience of us a part of our own experience of ourselves. The stage-3 “deep structure” that creates this new understanding of relationships is the ability to take two social perspectivessimultaneously. We often see the first expressions of this capacity in early adolescence. Consider the following incident. My13-year-old daughter left for school one morning in apparent good humor. A few minutes later I was surprised to hear her returning through the front door. Going to see what brought her back, I discovered her in tears. Thinking she’d probably had another encounter with the neighborhood bully, I asked her what was wrong. Her reply was, “Everybody’s going to think my shoes look stupid.”
217 words in 31 seconds.
Part 3 includes a loosely defined “spirituality, “Fun” and “politics”. Take what you will from those headings – they were decided after I had read the books and sorted them into categories of their topics.
Mindfulness meditation. Chade is known as “the jolly fellow of google” for being in the lucky position of being an early google employee and now probably a gazillionaire. But also for being able to breathe out joy and loving-kindness on those around him with every breath he takes. He also teaches the program of mindfulness around the world as he goes. How to imagine loving-kindness on all those around you. I read this book in the middle of my great citrulline-malate-enlightenment saga. One that I would not recommend you follow. But if you are on the journey to enlightenment you might as well indulge in a few methods of getting there (see PNSE as well).
See Zen koans. This is a book of original traditional zen koans. They are fun to play with, as described in my post/dojo. It’s not a “book” book, but it’s a path to spiritual enlightenment if you choose it.
This is one of the very well talked about books on spirituality. It’s very convenient that when you start reading into all of these and they agree with each other and they give you the feeling of “everything makes sense” not in the sense that it actually makes sense but in the sense that you think it does. He covers the non-self also known as non-duality stuff. and he does well. Meditation, consciousness, it’s a hard area to lay it all out. And he does it well. If you need spirituality. He has answers.
It’s Jordan Peterson. He’s a great character with hundreds of hours of videos on youtube that you can lose yourself in. This book is about finding meaning. His thesis is that you find meaning by viewing your life through narrative. Past, Present, Future. Where you came from, where you are now and where you are going to. Knowing this and being able to write it out and share it is what makes meaning. Most of this book is quoting various biblical mythologies and fitting all that into a framework that “people have always created meaning using narrative”. Which is fine. It’s an idea.
He goes on to suggest some tropes like, The hero enters the chaotic world by leaving safety, where he is first beaten to a pulp and terrified. While in the chaotic land he learns to tame it, slays the dragon and brings back the pelt as armour. He then return home to celebrate victory. Except dragon is any challenge and the pelt is any learning that you gained when you grew from adversity. That’s it. That’s meaning.
Except for one thing. JP has a very very high verbal IQ. That means he’s a great story teller and an even better lecturer. But what he would have difficulty taking into account is his own lens. His way of seeing the world through story, his thesis, is literally his lens of the world. In classic typical mind behaviour he insists that this works for everyone, and acts very convincingly to say so.
It’s up to you. It’s a dense read, maybe you can skip the quoted blocks and just read the bits that are not quotes. But I think he is biased to his own worldview. And good on him! But that’s not how I get my meaning. There is also a big community out there if you want to talk to JP’ers.
Well. The comforting thought is that it just happens. Nothing personal. It’s not you, it just happens. And aside from the fact that this is just not meant to be comforting and is just about making known the fact that just so things are just so. I think the book would be a lot better if it wasn’t 90% bagging out organised religions in the process of saying “death is. and that’s okay”. I would say skip this book. It’s not that comforting and yeah, death happens. people die. ’tis life.
This is a paper not a book but really it’s an excellent presentation of information clustering enlightenment experience onto a continuum and comparing different people’s enlightenment to each other and being able to say “yes” people do end up in the same place when they end up enlightened. It’s short and it did nothing for me for 6 months till suddenly it clicked and a lot about enlightenment made sense. But that’s a story for another day!
Yea. The short says it. I suppose looking back I didn’t understand exactly how taoism sees talk about taoism. The short version is – Taoists don’t think very highly of talking about the tao, with an attitude of “talk about the tao is not the tao”. That’s right. Your goal is this thing but we can never really talk about it or tell you about it and maybe it will make sense if you get closer to it but how do you do that? well we can’t tell you because talking about the tao would be not the tao so good luck with the journey because we can’t give you any clues because it’s not tao if we tell you.
Which is just a really annoying way to say, “don’t try to hit me, actually hit me” or “do or don’t, there is no try” according to Morpheus and Yoda. So that leads to the guy in this book thinking he is hilarious when he is smirking to himself about how he can’t talk about the thing he wrote the book about. It’s a real shame because he could have just said that but instead he gives cryptic diatribes about how the Tao is not the Tao for a while until you lose interest.
I feel like a cynic trying to put that together but the honest truth is that I didn’t make sense of the book at all and I gave up part way.
I only wanted to read a chapter or two of this. In short it says that god (in various religions) was about tolerance and peace and not mass murder and anyone using god to justify their holy wars is wrong because that’s not what God said and that’s not God. But anyone about to read this book is going to be someone who realises that you are preaching to the choir. Why would anyone who disagrees with that concept ever pick up this book?
In enlightenment territory there is the path of “meditate on a mountain for 10 years” and then there is the path of, “it was here all along, you just need to get it to click”. TBH if I had to choose I would choose the easy path. The, “It’s here”.
Gateless gatecrashers (love the name) is exactly that. It’s about gatecrashing and shortcutting enlightenment. why not have it all right now? And I agree. The book is a series of guided conversations on how to think differently about the enlightenment being here already and examples of other people unlocking their enlightenment like that. Which is pretty great. If you can use this method I definitely would. Don’t waste your time for 10 years with meditation. Just work out how to click on to the sheer nothingness, irrelevance and “everything will be okay” of enlightenment. Go on! It’s fun!
Ferrett is my favourite author. Fix is the one novel I will have read this year, it’s the 3rd in the series of Flex, Flux and Fix. I have been calling The Ferrett my favourite author for over 10 years despite him only having written his first books in the very recent few years. He has been blogging for a very long time – writing hilarious stories for all of that time and generally living a hilarious and ridiculous life the whole time.
Apart from him being an excellent author who was going on to do great things, his actual book is set in a world like our own however it has ‘mancy. Which is the super powers that humans sometimes get when they obsess about a topic so bad that they burn a hole in the universe experiencing their topic. Sounds a bit like our world only if you Special.Interest that hard here people just avoid you and maybe put you in a mental asylum or tell you to hang out on tumblr. In the world of Flex, you get magical physics bending powers that are mediated by whether you think that karma is your bitch or you are at the mercy of karma.
Various world destroying events cause people to freak out and governments to lock down all the magic they can so magic is illegal and the government wants to kill anyone they find because sometimes when you rip a hole in the universe it doesn’t stitch back up and people get hurt and you accidentally the whole Europe. The main character is a bureaucracy-mancer who gets away with his tricks by being agenty and going full munchkin on his powers (the kind of story that rationalists will love). The thing about bureaucracy is that it has roots at the core of every record and every tracking system. Including time travel requests both forwards and backwards to collect forms and information from sources that might not exist yet. I don’t need to tell you that it’s both hilarious and brilliant the way the story pans out. To top it all off Ferret is a tragic kinkster who slips in wild sex moments casually. While they don’t add to the story all that much, and there are some dead plot hooks where “suddenly buttsex” because he has a great vision for that character that really did not get to play out in these books, it’s nice to see the normalising of the things that “we can’t talk about yet”.
All in all a great read. The next time The Ferrett publishes a book I will once again stop my life for as many hours as it takes to read that book too and enjoy being immersed in his world for as many words as he gives.
Theological fiction in an alternative reality where the kabbalistic and magically powerful “names of god” are active. And then you get capitalism to basically freak the shit out of that kind of hunger-free world-peace world you might get if humans didn’t have co-ordination problems. And a main character who is funny to read about and loves puns about whales. Enjoy.
This is a collection of stories about Feynman and the shenanigans he got up to by accident by being honest, simple minded, and genuine through his life. Highlights include a hobby in safe cracking, accidentally becoming and important space-travel person, trying to work out what a good math book is, and many many more. He had a wonderful way of looking at the world that is maybe under-appreciated. If we were all 1% more Feynman the world would be a better place.
This is the bible of the rationality movement. Written by the prolific Eliezer Yudkowsky in basically a death march of a million or so words in as short a time as it’s possible to write a million words. It covers some amazing basics of thinking skills. Map and territory, epistemics, politics, words and how we use them to confuse ourselves.
EY wrote RAZ on the way to making MIRI and building himself a career in the cutting edge of AI safety research. He needed to first explain to everyone why it was important, then he needed enough support to do what he wanted to do, and how he is doing exactly that.
I call this a cultural movement because the Rationality movement is a culture. It’s not so much a political movement as it is a subculture and a way of thinking that cares about clarity of thought and truth seeking. Aside from being a huge book and a reread, the community is alive and very active and it’s worth checking out.
A fascinating look into the history and gradual progression into aged care facilities and how we got to where we are today. Once upon a time people would die at home, then as medical technology advanced we could prolong life better and better. Eventually various kinds of retirement living homes and systems were set up to accommodate getting older. This was interesting because it was a regulator’s nightmare.
You try telling people that they have to build a nursing home facility with certain provisions in mind. Good luck to the lawyers because you know that’s who’s making money on that kind of regulation. The real trouble is that people get old and less able in different ways so a facility designed for someone who can still drive a car is going to be radically different to one designed to cater to someone who just lost the ability to read.
The mistake we made was living in the golden age between when people would just drop dead of “unknown causes” and the golden age where people just live forever by replacing organs and bodies as often as necessary to fix whatever is not working.
This kid has the right idea. But until that day; this book is a fascinating glimpse into what goes wrong when the incentives in the system are money and you are regularly guilted into “sparing no expense on grandma”. This is also relevant to the fact that on average a quarter of a person’s lifetime healthcare costs are spent in their last year and it doesn’t usually provide any benefit to the patient.
Importantly this book will teach you to ask the questions; “what is quality of life? When is life not worth living?”, for this person in particular – with some excellent stories about trading bad choices for worse ones and trying to get the most out of life that a patient wants to get out of life.
If eating food with family is your quality of life and your choices are to do a risky surgery which may see you eating through a tube or spend another month letting the cancer get worse – sometimes the better choice might be to let the cancer get worse while you enjoy that month. It’s not like we can stop death. What we can do is enjoy and maximise the time we have.
I really got out of this book – asking that question. Asking what matters (See also – the NVC book)
Swarmwise is about the pirate party. A political movement that worked to mobilise the lazy people on the internet that were willing to contribute a little bit here and there. They developed some fascinating strategies for keeping things moving, despite being run, organised and managed by effectively a swarm of humans with short attention spans and lots of little ideas all over the place.
They talk about having a pipeline. For example if you have someone willing to print fliers for you, and another person willing to hand them out, you need to make sure you find someone in the middle to get the fliers from A to B.
They talk about asking for support in terms of specific funding. “we need $X to print the fliers, if you gave $11.50 we’d need 100 people like you to make this work”. This makes it easy for people to be willing to help.
This and a few other small tips means that if you are looking to run a political or social movement with boots on the ground, you should definitely read this book about how to mobilise people.
Saul Alinsky is the father of left-ish protesting movements. With some fascinating ideas that strike at the hearts of making executives uncomfortable. Saul suggests that you can make the issue personal with naming-and-shaming tactics. Pick a figurehead and target them for action. He also makes sure to suggest tactics that use your power against the other parties power. For example – do something fun like a barbecue. Don’t do something hard-work like a walking rally if your constituents are old and don’t walk well. If your enemies are debaters, don’t let them talk! Take it off their turf and catch them off guard.
Fascinating to read about “play dirty then justify your actions later”. Definitely has some insights into human psychology and behaviour.
The bible of effective altruism. If you want to do good, how do you maximise the good that you do? The book is not a magically enjoyable read but that’s not why you read a book like this. It’s got all the classics like the drowning child argument, but it’s not nearly as convincing as I would have liked. Still better than nothing.
A political diatribe about how migrants are the cause of all Australia’s problems and we should let less people in. I thought it would be about housing, it was not and it was charged with an agenda and not that exciting. DS is a famous Australian who has strong opinions and is a good speaker and has a growing following as a household name. That doesn’t mean he can’t be wrong about things. I read this because I was hoping to find him pleasantly sharper and on the ball than I expected and I found him without justifications and with poor data when he had data.
This was suggested to me by a very good friend, several years ago. I got about two chapters in and was very disappointed. When I raised it with the friend they said that the book was not nearly as good as they thought it was back then and the arguments raised seemed to be about emotional pull and not good reasoning. It’s kind of on the side of if you already agree then you don’t need to read the book but if you don’t agree then you are probably not picking up the book in the first place.
I didn’t finish because I didn’t find it enjoyable or compelling and I got the feedback from my friend that it would not suit me.
This landed in my direction on the back of the 2017 crypto madness. It’s not a bad book but it’s not a good book either. It’s got some crypto foundation but for a person connected to the internet you probably know most of what’s in here. It does go into depth about some of the history and have some information that I didn’t have, but also didn’t need.
The thing about crypto is that someone worked out that they could print money. And they do this for a while. that’s fun until the government decides it does not want other people printing money. Then you have a problem.